Musical experience facilitates lexical tone processing among Mandarin speakers: Behavioral and neural evidence

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Music and speech share many sound attributes. Pitch, as the percept of fundamental frequency, often occupies the center of researchers’ attention in studies on the relationship between music and speech. One widely held assumption is that music experience may confer an advantage in speech tone processing. The cross-domain effects of musical training on non-tonal language speakers’ linguistic pitch processing have been relatively well established. However, it remains unclear whether musical experience improves the processing of lexical tone for native tone language speakers who actually use lexical tones in their daily communication. Using a passive oddball paradigm, the present study revealed that among Mandarin speakers, musicians demonstrated enlarged electrical responses to lexical tone changes as reflected by the increased mismatch negativity (MMN) amplitudes, as well as faster behavioral discrimination performance compared with age- and IQ-matched nonmusicians. The current results suggest that in spite of the preexisting long-term experience with lexical tones in both musicians and nonmusicians, musical experience can still modulate the cortical plasticity of linguistic tone processing and is associated with enhanced neural processing of speech tones. Our current results thus provide the first electrophysiological evidence supporting the notion that pitch expertise in the music domain may indeed be transferable to the speech domain even for native tone language speakers.

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